Emily Stewart and the lingering summer
Greensboro folkster Emily Stewart is strumming her way around North Carolina and riding out the lingering summer with a fruitful harvest of regular shows on the horizon.
“Do you really have to use the ‘F-word’?” Stewart asked in reference to the changing seasons. “This warm weather is helping me live in denial,” she continued. “Let’s just say that when it really sets in, I’ll be breaking out my tuning fork that matches the vibration of the sun to trick my body into being warm and happy.”
An enthusiast amateur farmer in the field and professional folkster in the street, Stewart came to Greensboro from Alabama by way of Guilford College. A literal run-in with farm-equipment tipped her toward music in her early 20s.
“I got hit by a tractor when I was 23 and had some extra time on my hands,” she explained. “At first, I mostly played guitar, but I got tricked into playing banjo shortly after that and really loved it. Music is super healing.”
She’s since added an array of instruments into her arsenal: banjo, dobro, guitar, harmonica, honkelulu, lap dulcimer, and she’s not stopping.
“Lately I’ve been falling in love with the zhongruan, a Chinese instrument that feels like a giant bassy banjo with a gorgeous tone.”
An artist interested in contrast, Stewart could settle in between Billie Holiday and Kris Kristofferson, though she’d be likely barefoot in the process. Influences from narrative songbirds akin to Emmy Lou Harris and Lorretta Lynn naturally attach to Stewart on her own, “but accompanying others is often an entirely different story, depending on what the song is crying out for,” she said. Stewart’s ear for accompaniment has been developing over the years, with her current involvements spanning a handful of musical amalgamations. “I’ve really enjoyed the kaleidoscope approach of working with different musicians depending on the gig and the vibe,” she said.
That kaleidoscope spans a sort of twangy Triad rat pack of revolving artists who tour the local acoustic circuit. “My favorite term that has emerged from that crew is the talk of being a ‘Friendonfest,’” Stewart said, referencing the Glendonfest gathering hosted by Laura Jane Vincent. “I love dialing it down into a duet with Matty and have learned a lot from strategizing arrangements together one-on-one,” Stewart said about Magpie Thief, her band duo with longtime collaborator Matty Sheets, with whom she’s covered the most ground and released two records. Stewart also regularly duos with viola wizardess Kasey Horton on Tuesdays at the Filling Station in Greensboro.
“We share such an intuitive connection that it feels like we never have to talk about anything, we can just play and read each other’s minds, which is a beautiful thing,” Stewart said of Horton, with whom she also shares a monthly residency in Charlotte amongst general showbills.
Recently, Stewart has strummed-up a trio with Nicholas Bullins and T.J. Holt, in which she incorporates mandolin and pedal steel with vocal harmonies. Pete Pawsey, Momma Molasses, Ben Singer and more fall under Stewart’s umbrella of associated performers in her circuit, a routine developed by a “grow with what you know” approach to shows.
“The circuit approach probably results from the fact that booking and scheduling in a super organized fashion are not my strongest suits,” Stewart admitted. Organization may not be Stewart’s strongest skill set, but she tends to her craft like her garden and looks forward to incorporating more long-haul tours. In the meantime, there’s Stewart’s actual garden, which she lamented is “winding down,” with a notable exception being “the spicy pepper party” totaling around 45 plants. “The ghost peppers are even growing double, just in time for Halloween.”
As the weather eventually cools, Stewart will warm herself being a gal on the go, planting songs like seeds around central North Carolina. She’s got an EP in the works, after which she hopes to venture back to Alabama for a full-length record.
“I’ve had a working plan for a story-oriented album called ‘Blessin’ Hearts and Takin’ Names,’ that I’d like to take to Muscle Shoals,” she explained. But before Stewart takes her banjo back to Alabama, she’s got a regular slot on Tuesdays with Horton at the Filling Station and plenty of shows scattered around the state.
Upcoming Triad gigs include the Dan Riverkeeper Benefit at the Mad Bean in Madison on Oct. 4; Bonnie & Clyde’s Saloon in Winston-Salem on Oct. 5; and Oktoberfest at Oasis in Siler City on Oct. 13.
Katei Cranford is a Triad music nerd who hosts the Tuesday Tour Report, a radio show that runs like a mixtape of bands touring N.C. the following week, 5:30-7 p.m. on WUAG 103.1fm.